When Florence Hessing tried to get a state-issued photo identification card to comply with Wisconsin's new voter ID law, the 95-year-old was told she needed her birth certificate. But she didn't have one. She wrote to county officials in Iowa where she was born, but they told her there was no record of her birth. Suddenly, the retired mail carrier who's voted for decades was ineligible.
"It was frustrating," she said of the whole ordeal. "As long as I'm up and around, I should be able to vote. It's our privilege."
Hessing will seek an indefinitely confined status to be exempted from the law. But she is now part of a group of disillusioned voters hoping the state's voter identification law is stopped before it takes effect for the Feb. 21 spring primary. Groups suing the state say stories like Hessing's will help them succeed where other states with similar challenges failed.
Three lawsuits are at different stages, but major developments for each are expected within weeks. Groups hope to stop the law before it goes into effect for the primary or April 3 presidential primary. Most acknowledge the fight won't end soon even if they win initially because appeals are certain.
Voter ID is a contentious issue across the country. Fifteen states require voters to show photo ID, and legislation in 26 states includes proposals to introduce new voter ID laws or strengthen existing ones.
Wisconsin passed its law last spring. Acceptable ID includes a valid driver's license, a state-issued ID, a student ID that expires within two years, or a military ID. The National Conference of State Legislatures considers it one of the most stringent.
Groups that have filed lawsuits include the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, and the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP. Attorneys aren't consolidating the cases, arguing they've taken different approaches to fighting the law. But they name many similar defendants: Government Accountability Board members, Gov. Scott Walker and Department of Motor Vehicles members.
Attorney Richard Saks with the NAACP said he's confident they have a strong case.
"We've made a compelling demonstration to the judge of the serious burden that minorities face," he said. "Anybody who objectively looks at this law will conclude that these burdens are unwarranted."
State officials launched an ad campaign last month to educate voters and they're waiting for data to gauge its impact. But Marquette University Law School recently released a poll that shows 66 percent of 701 registered voters support the law, while only 32 percent oppose it.
Supporters say the law will prevent fraud. Opponents counter there's few documented cases of wrongdoing in Wisconsin. They also say certain groups — minorities, senior citizens, students and the poor — are likely to face bureaucratic roadblocks in getting a valid ID.
Attorneys for all three lawsuits said affidavits from those Wisconsin voters are a critical difference to similar cases in other states where voter ID laws were upheld, such as Indiana in 2008 and Georgia in 2007. In those rulings, the judges said plaintiffs failed to show real evidence that voters would incur a cost to vote. Justice department spokeswoman Dana Brueck said the state remains unconvinced that the law discriminates.
To the league and the NAACP — which filed lawsuits in Dane County Circuit Court last year — it violates the state Constitution's explicit language on every person's right to vote. They said amendments in the U.S. Constitution prohibit voting restrictions on race and sex, but Wisconsin's language is clearer.
The league filed its lawsuit in October and names itself and its Wisconsin board president, Melanie Ramey, as plaintiffs. They said the group represents voters who will be disenfranchised.
But state attorneys argue neither has standing and they lack proof of being truly affected. A judge has delayed a decision until March 9.
League attorney Lester Pines said the group will not file a temporary injunction to stop the law because it would only delay the March ruling.
"Our judgment is that it is better, in our case, to be fully briefed," he said. "If the timing is such that it's not in time for the February primary, so be it."
The NAACP and immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera, which filed its lawsuit in December, are seeking a temporary injunction. Saks, with the NAACP, said they have dozens of affidavits from people caught in countless hurdles in trying to comply with the law.
"We wanted to show that this was not just a theoretical problem," he said. "We're presenting real evidence of what's happening in the real world."
Saks said they are waiting for a judge to rule on the injunction, which could stop the law before Feb. 21.
The ACLU and National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty filed its federal lawsuit in December, arguing the law imposes a burden and creates an unconstitutional poll tax. They have at least 17 plaintiffs, including Brokaw resident Ruthelle Frank, who doesn't have a birth certificate but has served on her village board since 1996.
ACLU attorney Karyn Rotker said examples like Frank separate Wisconsin from the Supreme Court decision to uphold Indiana's voter ID law. Rotker said it proves Wisconsin plaintiffs are stuck with underlying fees when getting a valid ID. She said it's a key point. State attorneys will respond to the lawsuit Feb. 13.
"We don't believe this is the same as Indiana," she said. "We show people who are burdened and will actually be barred from voting."
Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Board is preparing for the Feb. 21 spring primary. GAB spokesman Reid Magney said they've launched a $436,000 ad campaign that includes a new website, print ads, billboards, and television and radio spots to educate voters on what they will need when they go to the polls. He said 5 percent to 10 percent of eligible voters are expected for what is traditionally a low turnout election.
"Our goal, and I don't know if we'll accomplish it, is to have everybody show up at the polls with an acceptable ID," he said.